family sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon
Jens Lucking—Getty Images

Millions of Families Will Soon Get Free Admission at National Parks

Feb 19, 2015

President Obama will be in Chicago on Thursday to designate the Pullman District as a National Monument. While he's there, Obama will also introduce a very special program called Every Kid in a Park that will provide free admission to fourth graders and their families at national parks, forests, monuments, and other federal lands for a year.

The Every Kid in a Park initiative will be available to families at the start of the 2015-2016 school year, in advance of the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service being celebrated in 2016. How it works is that next fall, all interested families with fourth graders will essentially be provided with a free annual pass (normal cost: $80) granting admission to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including world-famous national parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon—which each normally charges $25 to $30 per vehicle for a seven-day pass.

The program is "a call to action to get all children to visit and enjoy America’s unparalleled outdoors," a White House press release explains. "Today, more than 80 percent of American families live in urban areas, and many lack easy access to safe outdoor spaces. At the same time, kids are spending more time than ever in front of screens instead of outside."

Why only families with fourth graders? Presumably, it would be too costly—and likely, too crowded at the parks—to give free admission to everyone. What's more, the thinking is likely that fourth grade is an ideal time to expose children to the wonders of the outdoors, with the hope that doing so promotes a lifelong interest and appreciation of nature.

The initiative actually has a parallel in the ski industry. Around the country, Vermont, New Hampshire, Colorado, and several other ski-friendly states offer ski and snowboard passport programs that typically provide a season's worth of free lift passes for fourth or fifth graders. The concept makes sense because kids don't go to the mountains alone; their families generally come along, and they spend money at the resorts. The program also obviously helps get kids interested in winter mountain sports, potentially turning them into paying customers for years to come.

Likewise, free admission will nudge families into visiting national parks and recreation areas. And ideally, the kids who go hiking and camping and whatnot will fall in the love with the experience, and become lifelong visitors and supporters of the parks and the great outdoors.

As for those who don't have a fourth grader in the house, you're not entirely left out of the freebies. Every year, the National Park Service lists a handful of fee-free days, when admission is free for all visitors. Last weekend, in fact, admission was free in honor of President's Day. The next freebie event is the weekend of April 18-19, which kicks off National Parks week.

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